I've avoided watching this movie for a year and a half, after nearly seeing in the theater with the director Neil Marshall and one of the actresses, his wife Axelle Carolyn. I did see their panel at the Chicago 2010 ComicCon the next day. I admit some bias against the film, which makes me sad as I like some of Marshall's work. Yes, I am actually a fan of the generally loathed film Doomsday, I very much like The Decent and Dog Soldiers is not the worse werewolf movie ever, although I'd have hoped for more from a werewolf movie set in Scotland. While I know not to expect much from werewolf movies, I have learned to expect far less from movies about the "Picts."
You'd think, of course, that a movie with painted up female Pictish warriors would be right up my alley, but this couldn't be more wrong in my book. Of course, while I do love the idea of women warriors among Celtic people and I do think that they can be done in fiction, I think much care needs to be used in how it is done. We need to balance out the foolish fantasies of it being a usual thing and look as to where and how such women might have been found.
There were other issues I could see before seeing this movie, and seeing it doesn't help. One is the woad thing, I stand by my belief that this is a fiction, but I also understand it's a long standing one and people won't give it up easily. This goes with the "limed hair" or at least with what that would mean. I do hope that some people out there realize that lime is extremely caustic and no one would use it to "gel" their hair, it would quickly remove the hair and tanners actually use lime precisely for that. The reference (para. 28) to the Gauls doing so seems to refer to the damage done just by using lime water, briefly, to wash the hair, much the same as lye soap can do. It certainly wouldn't have looked like a pile of bird poo on top of the unbleached hair. This movie takes the cake in the stupidest depiction of "limed hair." And ickiest.
And dreadlocks. Now, I'm going to say that the Carolyn and Olga Kurylenko look very cool, in a punk warrior woman sort of way, they might have looked great in, say, Doomsday, and Kurylenko especially seems to be a popular avatar on my FB flist. But it's hardly accurate of the "Picts." The Celtic people (and I do believe they were Celtic speaking, but of a P-Celtic not the modern Gaelic they are depicted as speaking in this movie) of what is now Scotland would have been contemporary to other Celtic people. Which would mean textiles, stunning metal work and all. In fact, we know they had quite a good bit of nice metal work. They probably were also extremely into good grooming, as it does seem to have been a big thing for the Celtic people overall, and likely never would have had dreadlocks. Later periods certainly showed such concerns in the stone work, just check out the curls on the first "king" here (yes, this is at least 9th century, but I just love the hair on this).
Speaking of time periods, put "Picts" in quotes because these would not likely been known as Picts because the event this story, if it happened which it didn't, would have happened in 117 ce (and therefore why do the call the governor Julius Agricola who died in 98 ce, having been recalled from Britain before that) and the term "Pict" was not recorded prior to 297 ce. Before that they probably were known by tribal names.
But "tribe" should not make one think "savage" as the depiction here shows, they were a sophisticated people. We have them shown as stereotypical savage and that's the role they're used for. They are politically correct "Savage Indians" apparently; after all, no one can really claim to be of a living Pictish culture (well, aside from Robbie, I suppose) to complain. That Marshall has actually admitted this much in mind boggling, but he seems quite proud of it. That an actor who played a "Pict" in the movie, one who loves all things Pictish too (which makes me question how he can defend this movie beyond "I needed a paycheck") , said to me on FB that the Picts were "just like your Native Americans" I suppose brings up it up on the "Noble Savage" angle, which is just as stereotypical and insulting an image for both Native Americans and the memory of the Picts. (and while I might hold out a bit for the Noble Savage myself, I see it in the Outlaw Warrior bands, not the society ...and I admit, nobility might have been rare)
Of course, as the "Picts" are the "bad Indians" here, the Roman main character (Michael Fassbender) is the "Good Cowboy." Like the old Westerns, I find it hard to cheer for said fucking cowboy. The Romans were invaders, perpetrators of genocide, I do not consider anything about their occupation of Britain as noble or good. If the 9th Legion had been slaughtered, which they weren't then I'd consider it a good thing. (Actually, this is thought never to have happened, instead they were transferred to Germany.) But we're supposed to be cheering for the Roman protagonist here. Really?
All this was stuff I could have written before seeing the movie. So, how was the movie?
Boring. I have to say just plain boring, other than how annoyingly stupid it was. I was surprised by this, I had expected a lot of action and to say "at least it was a usual Marshal romp of activity." But it wasn't. And I don't think it was just because I could not sympathize with the Romans, it was just horribly paced and lacked any real action. Even the usual Marshall Gorn wasn't there. Seriously, you had people hacking other people up, the mighty heroic Romans even having to look away at one point, and ...meh. Not remotely gory. Seriously? I don't think I was the only one who had trouble staying awake, I think everyone who made it must have slept through the film.
I'd be interested in seeing how someone involved in Roman interests would view the actions of the Romans. I thought they seemed outstandingly stupid. The entire chase was both boring and boggling as I wondered why the hell they weren't caught in the very beginning or just found frozen to death when the all sleep out in the wind. Supposedly Etain (Kurylenko) is this super badass tracker, the "Picts" are on horseback, the Romans acting like idiots yet they continue to stay ahead. Seriously, the movie shouldn't have lasted so long. *yawn*
Oh, speaking of "on horseback" do I even need to mention that the horse types were wrong, which at this point can almost be forgiven as they usually are, and the saddles are way wrong which really can't be forgiven. We know exactly what Roman saddles were like and what ever the "Picts" might have ridden in I can guarantee you did not have fucking stirrups. I am so sick of seeing anachronistic stirrups. And, as in most movies, few of the riders could actually ride, so it's good the horses were way over sized or they'd have been unhappy with all that bouncing about.
Just to add a bit more to seriously hate about this movie, we go into the Big Bad Wolf trope, where wolves are shown to be man-eaters. Which people with an IQ above a turnip should know they are not. This is, sadly making a comeback, I guess we should expect it to come with more "Savage Indian" examples in the future. It's all cool, irrational hate is apparently the in thing.
We of course also have the Helpful Indian Maiden (Imogen Poots) who is nearly a Magical Native American, or rather Pict, except she's only accused of practicing witchcraft. True to form, she and the Good Cowboy "have feelings."
So, what about those women warriors? Again, they looked sort of cool. In stills. Sadly, neither was convincing when the action came about, but they, and their stunt doubles, may just have been asleep. The fight scene with Kurylenko was just horrible and unrealistic even from my view point (remember, I liked Doomsday),because she just wasn't moving they way it seemed she was supposed to. Neither she nor Carolyn appeared comfortable in their bodies. Perhaps this is linked, at least for Carolyn, in her apparent belief that women and men are physically so different that they can't fight the same, a belief she expressed at the ComicCon panel. This was a sad set back from a director who gave us Rhona Mitra and Lee-Anne Liebenberg, both strong women who know how to move, in Doomsday. While I sometimes see potential for actresses to do better action roles when stuck in such a dismal movie, neither Carolyn nor Kurylenko would be names that would make me have much hope for a good warrior film. They seemed totally out of their element. The assumptions around them seemed to be that it was normal, there seemed to be a few other female "Picts" (hard to tell on my small screen).
Kurylenko's Etain had a Rape and Revenge backstory while Carolyn's Aeron seemed to "just be there" (in more ways than one, as, again, she just seemed to be sleep walking through the action). Mind you, I love the idea of multiple female warriors in a movie and I've been thinking about writing something on the need for varying reasons for a woman to become a warrior to be included in a single movie. The problem here, however, is that while it's a popular fantasy, there is no evidence that female warriors were considered normal in any early Celtic culture, including those of what is now Scotland. I believe they existed, I could happily watch a well done movie with them (please, someone make one!) but there would need to make some point of why they might exist in such a culture.
I should note, however, none of the male-on-male fight scenes were really any better than the women fighting. Considering the plot, there wasn't a lot of action in the action in the movie. Did I mention everyone seems to be only half there in this thing?
Of course, much of the dialogue may have been lost on me. Few of the actors could enunciate clearly when speaking "Latin" (English) and even if I could normally follow spoken Gaelic (I can read a little, slowly) I doubt that was spoken any better (I'd be interested in knowing what someone who can normally follow it thought...of course, Gaelic would not have been the form spoken, it would likely have been closer to Welsh as a modern variation). The subtitles were almost totally unreadable on my small screen, apparently no one cared if people might want to watch this at home. Perhaps they realized no one would really want to watch this.
Over all, this movie was bad. Not just for all the reasons I knew it wasn't going to be good, but really just bad. The few things that could have been good just were poorly done and the whole thing seems to just be an exercise in bringing back racist movie tropes in new packaging in hopes no one will complain. And one that seems to have been halfhearted considering that everyone seems to sleep walk through the whole thing.
ETA: I think I actually blocked this from my brain. The symbol stones they showed. Um, why did they look as worn down or even more worn down than many look today? Considering they don't date any earlier than the 5th century ce, and some consider that a romantically early dating (that's 4 hundred years later than the movie takes place). I'm sure if they had them then, they wouldn't have used them to chain up prisoners.
ETA2: I also forgot to bitch about the lack of fortifications in the Pictish settlement. This of course made it nice and easy for the Romans to sneak in, but, no never would have happened. There would have been walls and guards and all that stuff that people do when attacks could happen at any time.
Copyright © 2012 Kym Lambert
This blog is part of the Scáth na Feannóige/Shadow of the Hooded Crow project exploring fénnidecht as a practice to follow the War Goddessses, Badb, Macha and the Morrígan whose name is Anann. This is a less formal place for me to discuss various issues of interest to someone on a modern version of the Outlaw warrior path such as physical training, history, Old Irish literature, pop culture inspirations, werewolves, ecstatic trance (okay, I find that one tough to write about but I may try), gender issues the wilderness....